The Postdoctoral Experience (Revisited)

Bookmarked The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited (2014) (The National Academies Press)
The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited builds on the 2000 report Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers. That ground-breaking report assessed the postdoctoral experience and provided principles, action points, and recommendations to enhance that experience. Since the publication of the 2000 report, the postdoctoral landscape has changed considerably. The percentage of PhDs who pursue postdoctoral training is growing steadily and spreading from the biomedical and physical sciences to engineering and the social sciences. The average length of time spent in postdoctoral positions seems to be increasing. The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited reexamines postdoctoral programs in the United States, focusing on how postdocs are being guided and managed, how institutional practices have changed, and what happens to postdocs after they complete their programs. This book explores important changes that have occurred in postdoctoral practices and the research ecosystem and assesses how well current practices meet the needs of these fledgling scientists and engineers and of the research enterprise. The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited takes a fresh look at current postdoctoral fellows - how many there are, where they are working, in what fields, and for how many years. This book makes recommendations to improve aspects of programs - postdoctoral period of service, title and role, career development, compensation and benefits, and mentoring. Current data on demographics, career aspirations, and career outcomes for postdocs are limited. This report makes the case for better data collection by research institution and data sharing. A larger goal of this study is not only to propose ways to make the postdoctoral system better for the postdoctoral researchers themselves but also to better understand the role that postdoctoral training plays in the research enterprise. It is also to ask whether there are alternative ways to satisfy some of the research and career development needs of postdoctoral researchers that are now being met with several years of advanced training. Postdoctoral researchers are the future of the research enterprise. The discussion and recommendations of The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited will stimulate action toward clarifying the role of postdoctoral researchers and improving their status and experience.

The National Academy of Sciences has published a (free) book: The Postdoctoral Experience (Revisited) discussing where we’re at and some ideas for a way forward.

Most might agree that our educational system is far less than ideal, but few pay attention to significant problems at the highest levels of academia which are holding back a great deal of our national “innovation machinery”. The National Academy of Sciences has published a (free) book: The Postdoctoral Experience (Revisited) discussing where we’re at and some ideas for a way forward. There are some interesting ideas here, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

Book cover of The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited (2014)
The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited (2014) | National Academies Press

Git and Version Control for Novelists, Screenwriters, Academics, and the General Public

Marginalia and Revision Control

At the end of April, I read an article entitled “In the Margins” in the Johns Hopkins University Arts & Sciences magazine.  I was particularly struck by the comments of eminent scholar Jacques Neefs on page thirteen (or paragraph 20) about computers making marginalia a thing of the past:

Neefs believes contemporary literature is losing a valuable component in an age when technology often precludes and trumps the need to save manuscripts or rough drafts. But it is not something that keeps him up at night. ‘The modern technique of computers and everything makes [marginalia] a thing of the past,’ he says. ‘There’s a new way of creation. Some would say it’s tragic, but something new has been invented. I don’t consider it tragic. There are still great writers who write and continue to have a way to keep the process.’

Photo looking over the shoulder of Jacques Neefs onto the paper he's been studing on the table in front of him.
Jacques Neefs (Image courtesy of Johns Hopkins University)

I actually think that he may be completely wrong and that current technology actually allows us to keep far more marginalia! (Has anyone heard of digital exhaust?) The bigger issue may be that many writers just don’t know how to keep a better running log of their work to maintain all the relevant marginalia they’re actually producing. (Of course there’s also the subsequent broader librarian’s “digital dilemma” of maintaining formats for the future. As an example, thing about how easy or hard it might be for you to read that ubiquitous 3.5 inch floppy disk you used in 1995.)

A a technologist who has spent many years in the entertainment industry, I feel compelled to point everyone towards the concept of revision control (or version control) within the realm of computer science.  Though it’s primarily used in tracking changes in computer programs and is often a tool used by large teams of programmers, it can very easily be used for tracking changes in almost any type of writing from novels, short stories, screenplays, legal contracts, or any type of textual documentation of nearly any sort.

Example Use Cases for Revision Control

Publishing

As a direct example, I’m using what is known as a Git repository to track every change I make in a textbook I’m currently writing.  I can literally go back and view every change I’ve made since beginning the project, so though I’m directly revising one (or more) text files, all of my “marginalia” and revisions are saved and available.  Currently I’m only doing it for my own reference and for additional backup not supposing that anyone other than myself or an editor possibly may want to ever peruse it.  If I was working in conjunction with otheres, there are ways for me to track the changes, edits, or notes that others (perhaps an editor or collaborator) might make.

In addition to the general back-up of the project (in case of catastrophic computer failure), I also have the ability to go back and find that paragraph (or multiple pages) I deleted last week in haste, but realize that I desperately want them back now instead of having to recreate them de n0vo.

Because it’s all digital, future scholars also won’t have problems parsing my handwriting issues as has occasionally come up in differentiating Mary Shelley’s writing from that of her husband in digital projects like the Shelley Godwin Archive. The fact that all changes are tracked and placed in a tree-like structure will indicate who wrote what and when and will indicate which changes were ultimately accepted and merged into the final version.

Screenplays in Hollywood

One particular use case I can easily see for such technology is tracking changes in screenplays over time.  I’m honestly shocked that every production company or even more likely studios don’t use such technology to follow changes in drafts over time. In the end, doing such tracking will certainly make Writers Guild of America (WGA) arbitrations much easier as literally every contribution to a script can be tracked to give screenwriters appropriate credit. The end results with the easy ability to time-machine one’s way back into older drafts is truly lovely, and the outputs give so much more information about changes in the script compared to the traditional and all-too-simple (*) which screenwriters use to indicate that something/anything changed on a specific line or the different colored pages which are used on scripts during production.

I can also picture future screenwriters using services like GitHub as platforms for storing and distributing their screenplays to potential agents, managers, and producers.

Redlining Legal Documents

Having seen thousands of legal agreements go back and forth over the years, revision control is a natural tool for tracking the redlining and changes of legal documents as they change over time before they are finally (or even never) executed. I have to imagine that being able to abstract out the appropriate metadata in the long run may actually help attorneys, agents, etc. to become better negotiators, but something like this is a project for another day.

Academia

In addition to direct research for projects being undertaken by academics like Neefs, academics should look into using revision control in their own daily work and writings.  While writing a book, paper, journal article, essay, monograph, etc. (or graduate students writing theses) one could use their own Git repository to not only save but to back up all of their own work not only for themselves primarily, but also future scholars who come later who would not otherwise have access to the “marginalia” one creates while manufacturing their written thoughts in digital form.

I can easily picture Git as a very simple “next step” in furthering the concept of the digital humanities as well as in helping to bridge the gap between C.P. Snow’s “two cultures.” (I’d also suggest that revision control is a relatively simple step one could take before learning a particular programming language, which I think should be a mandatory tool in everyone’s daily toolbox regardless of their field(s) of interest.)

Git Logo

Start Using Revision Control

“But how do I get started?” you ask.

Know going in that it may take parts of a day to get things set up and running, but once you’ve started with the basics, things are actually pretty easy and you can continue to learn the more advanced subtleties as you progress.  Once things are working smoothly, the additional overhead you’ll be expending won’t be too much more than the old method of hitting Alt-S to save one of your old Word documents in the time before auto-save became ubiquitous.

First one should start by choosing one of the myriad revision control systems that exist.  For the sake of brevity in this short introductory post, I’ll simply suggest that users take a very close look at Git because of its ubiquity and popularity in the computer science world and the fact that it includes a tremendously large amount of free information and support from a variety of sites on the internet. Git also has the benefit of having versions for all major operating systems (Windows, MacOS, and Linux). Git also has the benefit of a relatively long and robust life within the computer science community meaning that it’s very stable and has many more resources for the uninitiated to draw upon.

Once one has Git installed on their computer and has begun using it, I’d then recommending linking one’s local copy of the repository to a cloud storage solution like either GitHub or BitBucket.  While GitHub is certainly one of the most popular Git-related services out there (because it acts, in part, as the hub for a large portion of the open internet and thus promotes sharing), I often recommend using BitBucket as it allows free unlimited private but still share-able repositories while GitHub requires a small subscription fee for keeping one’s work private. Having a repository in the cloud will help tremendously in that your work will be available and downloadable from almost anywhere and because it also serves as a de-facto back-up solution for your work.

I’ve recently been playing around with version control to help streamline the writing/editing process for a book I’ve been writing. Though Git and it’s variants probably seem more daunting than they should to the everyday user, they really represent a very powerful tool. I’ve spent less than two days learning the basics of both Git and hosted repositories (GitHub and Bitbucket), and it has been more than well worth the minor effort.

There is a huge wealth of information on revision control in general and on installing and using Git available on the internet, including full textbooks. For the complete beginners, I’d recommend starting with The Chronicle’s “A Gentle Introduction to Version Control.” Keep in mind that though some of these resources look highly technical, it’s because many are trying to enumerate every function one could potentially desire, when even just the basic core functionality is more than enough to begin with. (I could analogize it to learning to drive a car versus actually reading the full manual so that you know how to take the engine apart and put it back together from scratch. To start with revision control, you only need to learn to “drive.”) Professors might also avail themselves of the use of their local institutional libraries which may host small sessions on learning such tools, or they might avail themselves of the help of their colleagues or students in the computer science department. For others, I’d recommend taking a look at Git’s primary website. BitBucket has an excellent step-by-step tutorial (and troubleshooting) for setting up the requisite software and using it.

What do you use for revision control?

I’ll welcome any thoughts, experiences, or additional resources one might want to share with others in the comments.

The Teaching Company and The Great Courses versus MOOCs

Robert Greenberg recently wrote a Facebook post relating to a New York Times review article entitled “For This Class, Professors Pass Screen Test“. It’s substantively about The Teaching Company and their series The Great Courses (TGC); for convenience I’ll excerpt his comments in their entirety below:

A most interesting article on The Great Courses (TGC) appeared in the New York Times on Saturday. TGC has been featured in newspaper articles before: scads of articles, in fact, over the last 20-plus years. But those articles (at least the ones I’m aware of and I am aware of most of them) have always focused on the content of TGC offerings: that they are academic courses offered up on audio/video media. This article, written by the Times’ TV critic Neil Genzlinger, is different. It focuses on TGC as a video production company and on TGC courses as slick, professional, high-end television programs.

My goodness, how times have changed.

Long-time readers of this blog will recall my descriptions of TGC in its early days. I would rehash a bit of that if only to highlight the incredible evolution of the company from a startup to the polished gem it is today.

I made my first course back in May of 1993: the first edition of “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music”. We had no “set”; I worked in front of a blue screen (or a “traveling matte”). The halogen lighting created an unbelievable amount of heat and glare. The stage was only about 6 feet deep but about 20 feet wide. With my sheaf of yellow note paper clutched in my left hand, I roamed back-and-forth, in constant motion, teaching exactly the way I did in the classroom. I made no concessions to the medium; to tell the truth, it never occurred to me or my director at the time that we should do anything but reproduce what I did in the classroom. (My constant lateral movement did, however, cause great consternation among the camera people, who were accustomed to filming stationary pundits at CNN and gasbags at C-span. One of our camera-dudes, a bearded stoner who will remain nameless kept telling me “Man . . . I cannot follow you, man. Please, man, please!” He was a good guy though, and offered to “take my edge off” by lighting me up during our breaks. I wisely declined.)

We worked with a studio audience in those days: mostly retirees who were free to attend such recording sessions, many of whom fell asleep in their chairs after lunch or jingled change in their pockets or whose hearing aids started screaming sounds that they could not hear but I most certainly did. Most distracting were the white Styrofoam coffee cups; in the darkened studio their constant (if irregular) up-and-down motion reminded me of the “bouncing ball” from the musical cartoons of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.

I could go on (and I will, at some other time), though the point is made: in its earliest days TGC was simply recording more-or-less what you would hear in a classroom or lecture hall. I am reminded of the early days of TV, during which pre-existing modes of entertainment – the variety show, theatrical productions, puppet shows – were simply filmed and broadcast. In its earliest permutation, the video medium did not create a new paradigm so much as record old ones. But this changed soon enough, and the same is true for TGC. Within a few years TGC became a genuine production company, in which style, look, and mode of delivery became as important as the content being delivered. And this is exactly as it should be. Audio and video media demand clarity and precision; the “ahs” and “ums” and garbled pronunciations and mismatched tenses that we tolerate in a live lecture are intolerable in media, because we are aware of the fact that in making media they can (and should) be corrected.

Enough. Read the article. Then buy another TGC course; preferably one of mine. And while watching and/or listening, let us be aware, as best as we can, of the tens-of-thousands of hours that go into making these courses – these productions – the little masterworks that they indeed are.

 

My response to his post with some thoughts of my own follows:

This is an interesting, but very germane, review. As someone who’s both worked in the entertainment industry and followed the MOOC (massively open online courseware) revolution over the past decade, I very often consider the physical production value of TGCs offerings and have been generally pleased at their steady improvement over time. Not only do they offer some generally excellent content, but they’re entertaining and pleasing to watch. From a multimedia perspective, I’m always amazed at what they offer and that generally the difference between the video versus the audio only versions isn’t as drastic as one might otherwise expect. Though there are times that I think that TGC might include some additional graphics, maps, etc. either in the course itself or in the booklets, I’m impressed that they still function exceptionally well without them.

Within the MOOC revolution, Sue Alcott’s Coursera course Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets is still by far the best produced multi-media course I’ve come across. It’s going to take a lot of serious effort for other courses to come up to this level of production however. It’s one of the few courses which I think rivals that of The Teaching Company’s offerings thus far. Unfortunately, the increased competition in the MOOC space is going to eventually encroach on the business model of TGC, and I’m curious to see how that will evolve and how it will benefit students. Will TGC be forced to offer online fora for students to interact with each other the way most MOOCs do? Will MOOCs be forced to drastically increase their production quality to the level of TGC? Will certificates or diplomas be offered for courseware? Will the subsequent models be free (like most MOOCs now), paid like TGC, or some mixture of the two?

One area which neither platform seems to be doing very well at present is offering more advanced coursework. Naturally the primary difficulty is in having enough audience to justify the production effort. The audience for a graduate level topology class is simply far smaller than introductory courses in history or music appreciation, but those types of courses will eventually have to exist to make the enterprises sustainable – in addition to the fact that they add real value to society. Another difficulty is that advanced coursework usually requires some significant work outside of the lecture environment – readings, homework, etc. MOOCs seem to have a slight upper hand here while TGC has generally relied on all of the significant material being offered in a lecture with the suggestion of reading their accompanying booklets and possibly offering supplementary bibliographies. When are we going to start seeing course work at the upper-level undergraduate or graduate level?

The nice part is that with evolving technology and capabilities, there are potentially new pedagogic methods that will allow easier teaching of some material that may not have been possible previously. (For some brief examples, see this post I wrote last week on Latin and the digital humanities.) In particular, I’m sure many of us have been astounded and pleased at how Dr. Greenberg managed the supreme gymnastics of offering of “Understanding the Fundamentals of Music” without delving into traditional music theory and written notation, but will he be able to actually offer that in new and exciting ways to increase our levels of understanding of music and then spawn off another 618 lectures that take us all further and deeper into his exciting world? Perhaps it comes in the form of a multimedia mobile app? We’re all waiting with bated breath, because regardless of how he pulls it off, we know it’s going to be educational, entertaining and truly awe inspiring.

Following my commentary, Scott Ableman, the Chief Marketing Officer for TGC, responded with the following, which I find very interesting:

Chris, all excellent observations (and I agree re Alcott’s course). I hope you’ll be please to learn that the impact of MOOCs, if any, on The Great Courses has been positive, in that there is a rapidly growing awareness and interest in the notion that lifelong learning is possible via digital media. As for differentiating vs. MOOCs, people who know about The Great Courses generally find the differences to be self-evident:

  1. Curation: TGC scours the globe to find the world’s greatest professors;
  2. Formats: The ability to enjoy a course in your car or at home on your TV or on your smartphone, etc.;
  3. Lack of pressure: Having no set schedule and doing things at your own pace with no homework or exams (to be sure, there are some for whom sitting at a keyboard at a scheduled time and taking tests and getting a certificate is quite valuable, but that’s a different audience).

The Great Courses once were the sole claimant to a fourth differentiator, which is depth. Obviously, the proliferation of fairly narrow MOOCs provides as much depth on many topics, and in some cases addresses your desire for higher level courses. Still TGC offers significant depth when compared to the alternatives on TV or audio books. I must say that I was disappointed that Genzlinger chose to focus on this notion that professors these days “don’t know how to lecture.” He suggests that TGC is in the business of teaching bad lecturers how to look good in front of a camera. This of course couldn’t be further from the truth. Anybody familiar with The Great Course knows that among its greatest strengths is its academic recruiting team, which finds professors like Robert Greenberg and introduces them to lifelong learners around the world.

 

The Mnemonic Major System and Gregg Shorthand Have the Same Underlying Structure!

I’ve been a proponent and user of a variety of mnemonic systems since I was about eleven years old.  The two biggest and most useful in my mind are commonly known as the “method of loci” and the “major system.” The major system is also variously known as the phonetic number system, the phonetic mnemonic system, or Hergione’s mnemonic system after French mathematician and astronomer Pierre Hérigone (1580-1643) who is thought to have originated its use.

The major system generally works by converting numbers into consonant sounds and then from there into words by adding vowels under the overarching principle that images (of the words) can be remembered more easily than the numbers themselves. For instance, one could memorize one’s grocery list of a hundred items by associating each shopping item on a numbered list with the word associated with the individual number in the list. As an example, if item 22 on the list is lemons, one could translate the number 22 as “nun” within the major system and then associate or picture a nun with lemons – perhaps a nun in full habit taking a bath in lemons to make the image stick in one’s memory better. Then at the grocery store, when going down one’s list, when arriving at number 22 on the list, one automatically translates the number 22 to “nun” which will almost immediately conjure the image of a nun taking a bath in lemons which gives one the item on the list that needed to be remembered.  This comes in handy particularly when one needs to be able to remember large lists of items in and out of order.

The following generalized chart, which can be found in a hoard of books and websites on the topic, is fairly canonical for the overall system:

Numeral IPA Associated Consonants Mnemonic for remembering the numeral and consonant relationship
0 /s/ /z/ s, z, soft c “z” is the first letter of zero; the other letters have a similar sound
1 /t/ /d/ t, d t & d have one downstroke and sound similar (some variant systems include “th”)
2 /n/ n n has two downstrokes
3 /m/ m m has three downstrokes; m looks like a “3” on its side
4 /r/ r last letter of four; 4 and R are almost mirror images of each other
5 /l/ l L is the Roman Numeral for 50
6 /ʃ/ /ʒ/ /tʃ/ /dʒ/ j, sh, soft g, soft “ch” a script j has a lower loop; g is almost a 6 rotated
7 /k/ /ɡ/ k, hard c, hard g, hard “ch”, q, qu capital K “contains” two sevens (some variant systems include “ng”)
8 /f/ /v/ f, v script f resembles a figure-8; v sounds similar (v is a voiced f)
9 /p/ /b/ p, b p is a mirror-image 9; b sounds similar and resembles a 9 rolled around
Unassigned Vowel sounds, w,h,y w and h are considered half-vowels; these can be used anywhere without changing a word’s number value

There are a variety of ways to use the major system as a code in addition to its uses in mnemonic settings.  When I was a youth, I used it to write coded messages and to encrypt a variety of things for personal use. After I had originally read Dr. Bruno Furst’s series of booklets entitled You Can Remember: A Home Study Course in Memory and Concentration 1, I had always wanted to spend some time creating an alternate method of writing using the method.  Sadly I never made the time to do the project, but yesterday I made a very interesting discovery that, to my knowledge, doesn’t seem to have been previously noticed!

My discovery began last week when I read an article in The Atlantic by journalist Dennis Hollier entitled How to Write 225 Words Per Minute with a Pen: A Lesson in the Lost Technology of Shorthand. 2 In the article, which starts off with a mention of the Livescribe pen – one of my favorite tools, Mr. Hollier outlines the use of the Gregg System of Shorthand which was invented by John Robert Gregg in 1888. The description of the method was intriguing enough to me that I read a dozen additional general articles on shorthand on the internet and purchased a copy of Louis A. Leslie’s two volume text Gregg Shorthand: Functional Method. 3

I was shocked, on page x of the front matter, just before the first page of the text, to find the following “Alphabet of Gregg Shorthand”:

Alphabet of Gregg Shorthand
Alphabet of Gregg Shorthand
Gregg Shorthand is using EXACTLY the same consonant-type breakdown of the alphabet as the major system!

Apparently I wasn’t the first to have the idea to turn the major system into a system of writing. The fact that the consonant breakdowns for the major system coincide almost directly to those for the shorthand method used by Gregg cannot be a coincidence!

The Gregg system works incredibly well precisely because the major system works so well. The biggest difference between the two systems is that Gregg utilizes a series of strokes (circles and semicircles) to indicate particular vowel sounds which allows for better differentiation of words which the major system doesn’t generally take into consideration. From an information theoretic standpoint, this is almost required to make the coding from one alphabet to the other possible, but much like ancient Hebrew, leaving out the vowels doesn’t remove that much information. Gregg, also like Hebrew, also uses dots and dashes above or below certain letters to indicate the precise sound of many of its vowels.

The upside of all of this is that the major system is incredibly easy to learn and use, and from here, learning Gregg shorthand is just a hop, skip , and a jump – heck, it’s really only just a hop because the underlying structure is so similar. Naturally as with the major system, one must commit some time to practicing it to improve on speed and accuracy, but the general learning of the system is incredibly straightforward.

Because the associations between the two systems are so similar, I wasn’t too surprised to find that some of the descriptions of why certain strokes were used for certain letters were very similar to the mnemonics for why certain letters were used for certain numbers in the major system.

From Dr. Bruno Furst's "You Can Remember!" The mnemonic for remembering 6, 7, 8, & 9 in the major system
From Dr. Bruno Furst’s “You Can Remember!”
The mnemonic for remembering 6, 7, 8, & 9 in the major system.
From Louis Leslie's "Gregg Shorthand: Functional Method" The mnemonic for remembering the strokes for k and g.
From Louis Leslie’s “Gregg Shorthand: Functional Method”
The mnemonic for remembering the strokes for k and g.

One thing I have noticed in my studies on these topics is the occasional references to the letter combinations “NG” and “NK”. I’m curious why these are singled out in some of these systems? I have a strong suspicion that their inclusion/exclusion in various incarnations of their respective systems may be helpful in dating the evolution of these systems over time.

I’m aware that various versions of shorthand have appeared over the centuries with the first recorded having been the “Tironian Notes” of Marcus Tullius Tiro (103-4 BCE) who apparently used his system to write down the speeches of his master Cicero. I’m now much more curious at what point the concepts for shorthand and the major system crossed paths or converged? My assumption would be that it happened in the late Renaissance, but it would be nice to have the underlying references and support for such a timeline. Perhaps it was with Timothy Bright’s publication of  Characterie; An Arte of Shorte, Swifte and Secrete Writing by Character (1588) 4, John Willis’s Art of Stenography (1602) 5, Edmond Willis’s An abbreviation of writing by character (1618) 6, or Thomas Shelton’s Short Writing (1626) 7? Shelton’s system was certainly very popular and well know because it was used by both Samuel Pepys and Sir Isaac Newton.

Certainly some in-depth research will tell, though if anyone has ideas, please don’t hesitate to indicate your ideas in the comments.

UPDATE on 7/6/14:

I’m adding a new chart making the correspondence between the major system and Gregg Shorthand more explicit.

A chart indicating the correspondences between the major system and Gregg Shorthand.
A chart indicating the correspondences between
the major system and Gregg Shorthand.

References

1.
Furst B. You Can Remember: A Home Study Course in Memory and Concentration. Markus-Campbell Co.; 1965.
2.
Hollier D. How to Write 225 Words Per Minute With a Pen: A lesson in the lost technology of shorthand. The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/06/yeah-i-still-use-shorthand-and-a-smartpen/373281/. Published 2014.
3.
Leslie LA. Gregg Shorthand: Functional Method. Gregg Publishing Company; 1947.
4.
Bright T (1550-1615). Characterie; An Arte of Shorte, Swifte and Secrete Writing by Character. 1st ed. I. Windet; reprinted by W. Holmes, Ulverstone; 1588. https://archive.org/details/characteriearteo00brig.
5.
Willis J. Art of Stenography.; 1602.
6.
Willis E. An Abbreviation of Writing by Character.; 1618.
7.
Shelton T. Short Writing.; 1626.

Latin Pedagogy and the Digital Humanities

I’ve long been a student of the humanities (and particularly the classics) and have recently begun reviewing over my very old and decrepit knowledge of Latin.  It’s been two decades since I made a significant study of classical languages, and lately (as the result of conversations with friends like Dave Harris, Jim Houser, Larry Richardson, and John Kountouris) I’ve been drawn to reviewing them for reading a variety of classical texts in their original languages. Fortunately, in the intervening years, quite a lot has changed in the tools relating to pedagogy for language acquisition.

Jenny's Second Year Latin
A copy of Jenny’s Latin text which I had used 20 years ago and recently acquired a new copy for the pittance of $3.25.

Internet

The biggest change in the intervening time is the spread of the  internet which supplies a broad variety of related websites with not only interesting resources for things like basic reading and writing, but even audio sources apparently including listening to the nightly news in Latin. There are a variety of blogs on Latin as well as even online courseware, podcasts, pronunciation recordings, and even free textbooks. I’ve written briefly about the RapGenius platform before, but I feel compelled to mention it as a potentially powerful resource as well. (Julius Caesar, Seneca, Ovid, Cicero, et al.) There is a paucity of these sources in a general sense in comparison with other modern languages, but given the size of the niche, there is quite a lot out there, and certainly a mountain in comparison to what existed only twenty years ago.

Software

There has also been a spread of pedagogic aids like flashcard software including Anki and Mnemosyne with desktop, web-based, and even mobile-based versions making  learning available in almost any situation. The psychology and learning research behind these types of technologies has really come a long way toward assisting students to best make use of their time in learning and retaining what they’ve learned in long term memory.  Simple mobile applications like Duolingo exist for a variety of languages – though one doesn’t currently exist for classical Latin (yet).

Digital Humanities

The other great change is the advancement of the digital humanities which allows for a lot of interesting applications of knowledge acquisition. One particular one that I ran across this week was the Dickinson College Commentaries (DCC). Specifically a handful of scholars have compiled and documented a list of the most common core vocabulary words in Latin (and in Greek) based on their frequency of appearance in extant works.  This very specific data is of interest to me in relation to my work in information theory, but it also becomes a tremendously handy tool when attempting to learn and master a language.  It is a truly impressive fact that, simply by knowing that if one can memorize and master about 250 words in Latin, it will allow them to read and understand 50% of most written Latin.  Further, knowledge of 1,500 Latin words will put one at the 80% level of vocabulary mastery for most texts.  Mastering even a very small list of vocabulary allows one to read a large variety of texts very comfortably.  I can only think about the old concept of a concordance (which was generally limited to heavily studied texts like the Bible or possibly Shakespeare) which has now been put on some serious steroids for entire cultures. Another half step and one arrives at the Google Ngram Viewer.

The best part is that one can, with very little technical knowledge, easily download the DCC Core Latin Vocabulary (itself a huge research undertaking) and upload and share it through the Anki platform, for example, to benefit a fairly large community of other scholars, learners, and teachers. With a variety of easy-to-use tools, shortly it may be even that much easier to learn a language like Latin – potentially to the point that it is no longer a dead language. For those interested, you can find my version of the shared DCC Core Latin Vocabulary for Anki online; the DCC’s Chris Francese has posted details and a version for Mnemosyne already.

[Editor’s note: Anki’s web service occasionally clears decks of cards from their servers, so if you find that the Anki link to the DCC Core Latin is not working, please leave a comment below, and we’ll re-upload the deck for shared use.]

What tools and tricks do you use for language study and pedagogy?

Speed Reading on Web and Mobile

“Hi, my name is Chris, and I’m a Read-aholic.”

I

‘ll be the first to admit that I’m a reading junkie, but unfortunately there isn’t (yet) a 12 step program to help me.  I love reading lots of different types of things across an array of platforms (books, newspapers, magazines, computer, web, phone, tablet, apps) and topics (fiction/non-fiction and especially history, biography, economics, popular science, etc.).  My biggest problem and one others surely face is time.

There are so many things I want to read, and far too little time to do it in.  Over the past several years, I’ve spent an almost unreasonable amount of time thinking about what I consume and (possibly more importantly) how to intelligently consume more of it. I’ve spent so much time delving into it that I’ve befriended a professor and fellow renaissance man (literally and figuratively) who gave me a personal thank you in his opening to a best-selling book entitled “The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in an Age of Distraction.”

Information Consumption

At least twice a year I look at my reading consumption and work on how to improve it, all the while trying to maintain a level of quality and usefulness in what I’m consuming and why I’m consuming it.

  • I continually subscribe to new and interesting sources.
  • I close off subscriptions to old sources that I find uninteresting, repetitive (goodbye echo chamber), and those that are (or become) generally useless.
  • I carefully monitor the huge volumes of junk email that end up in my inbox and trim down on the useless material that I never seem to read, so that I’ll have more time to focus on what is important.
  • I’ve taken up listening to audiobooks to better utilize my time in the car while commuting.
  • I’ve generally quit reading large swaths of social media for their general inability to uncover truly interesting sources.
  • I’ve used some portions of social media to find other interesting people collating and curating areas I find interesting, but which I don’t have the time to read through everything myself.  Why waste my time reading hundreds of articles, when I can rely on a small handful of people to read them and filter out the best of the best for myself? Twitter lists in particular are an awesome thing.
  • I’ve given up on things like “listicles” or stories from internet click farm sources like BuzzFeed which can have some truly excellent linkbait-type headlines, but I always felt like I’ve completely wasted my time clicking through to them.

A New Solution

About six months ago in the mountain of tech journalism I love reading, I ran across a site launch notice about a tech start-up called Spritz which promised a radically different solution for the other side of the coin relating to my reading problem: speeding the entire process up!  Unfortunately, despite a few intriguing samples at the time (and some great details on the problem and their solution), they weren’t actually delivering a product.

Well, all that seems to have changed in the past few weeks. I’ve waited somewhat patiently and occasionally checked back on their progress, but following a recent mention on Charlie Rose, and some serious digging around on the broader internet, I’ve found some worthwhile tools that have sprouted out of their efforts.  Most importantly, Spritz itself now has a bookmarklet that seems to deliver on their promise of improving my reading speeds for online content. With the bookmarklet installed, one can go to almost any web article, click on the bookmarklet and then sit back and just read at almost any desired speed.  Their technology uses a modified version of the 1970’s technology known as Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) to speed up your reading ability, but does so in a way that is easier to effectuate with web and mobile technologies.  Essentially they present words serially in the same position on your screen with an optimized center mass so that one’s eyes stay still while reading instead of doing the typical saccaddic eye movements which occur with typical reading – and slow the process down.

 

A photo of how Spritz works for speed reading on the web.
Spritz for speed reading the web.

 

As a biomedical engineer, I feel compelled to note the interesting physiologic phenomenon that if one sits in a rotatable chair and spins with one’s eyes closed and their fingers lightly placed on their eyelids, one will feel the eye’s saccades even though one isn’t actually seeing anything.

Spritz also allows one to create an account and log in so that the service will remember your previously set reading speed. Their website does such a great job of explaining their concept, I’ll leave it to the reader to take a peek; but you may want to visit their bookmarklet page directly, as their own website didn’t seem to have a link to it initially.

As a sample of how Spritz works on the web, OysterBooks is hosting a Spritz-able version of Stephen R. Covey’s book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Naturally, Spritz’s solution is not a catch-all for everything I’d like to read, but it covers an interesting subcategory that will make things useful and easier.  Though trying to speed read journal articles, textbooks, and other technical literature isn’t the best idea in the world, Spritz will help me plow through more fiction and more leisurely types of magazine and online articles that are of general interest. I generally enjoy and appreciate these types of journalism and work, but just can’t always justify taking the time away from more academic pursuits to delve into them. Some will still require some further thought after-the-fact to really get their full value out of them, but at least I can cover the additional ground without wasting all the additional time to do so. I find I can easily double or triple my usual reading speed without any real loss of comprehension.

In the last week or so since installing a my several new speed reading bookmarklets, I’ve begun using them almost religiously in my daily reading regimen.

I’ll also note in passing that some studies suggest that this type of reading modality has helped those who face difficulties with dyslexia.

A picture of the Spritz RSVP reading interface featuring the word Boffosocko.
How to read Boffosocko faster than you though you could…

 

Speed Reading Competition

Naturally, since this is a great idea, there’s a bit of competition in the speed reading arena.

There are a small handful of web and app technologies which are built upon the RSVP concept:

  • Clayton Morris has also developed an iOS application called ReadQuick, which is based on the same concept as Spritz, but is only available via app and not on web.
  • Rich Jones has developed a program called OpenSpritz.  His version is opensource and has an Android port for mobile.
  • There’s also another similar bookmarklet called Squirt which also incorporates some nice UI tweaks and some of the technology from Readability as well.
  • For those wishing to Spritz .pdf or .txt documents, one can upload them using Readsy which uses Spritz’s open API to allow these types of functionalities.
  • There are also a variety of similar free apps in the Google Play store which follow the RSVP technology model.
  • Those on the Amazon (or Kindle Fire/Android Platform) will appreciate the Balto App which utilizes RSVP and is not only one of the more fully functional apps in the space, but it also has the ability to unpack Kindle formatted books (i.e. deal with Amazon’s DRM) to allow speed reading Kindle books. While there is a free version, the $1.99 paid version is more than well worth the price for the additional perks.

On and off for the past couple of years, I’ve also used a web service and app called Readfa.st which is a somewhat useful, but generally painful way to improve one’s speed reading. It also has a handy bookmarklet, but just wasn’t as useful as I had always hoped it might be. It’s interesting, but not as interesting or as useful as Spritz (and other RSVP technology) in my opinion since it feels more fatiguing to read in this manner

 

Bookmarklet Junkie Addendum

In addition to the handful of speed reading bookmarklets I’ve mentioned above, I’ve got over 50 bookmarklets in a folder on my web browser toolbar. I easily use about a dozen on a daily basis. Bookmarklets make my internet world much prettier, nicer, and cleaner with a range of simple clever code.  Many are for URL shortening, sharing content to a variety of social networks quickly, but a large number of the ones I use are for reading-related tasks which I feel compelled to include here: web clippers for Evernote and OneNote, Evernote’s Clearly, Readability, Instapaper, Pocket, Mendeley (for reading journal articles), and GoodReads.

Do you have a favorite speed reading application (or bookmarklet)?

Read Vocabulary Study with Mnemosyne by Chris Francese (Dickinson College Commentaries)
Learning any language involves acquiring a large amount of vocabulary. For this reason, I think it is very useful for Latin and Greek students to put time and effort into systematic vocabulary study.
I’ve added a copy of the DCC Core Latin Vocabulary to the Anki platform for those interested in utilizing it there instead of on Mnemosyne. The cards can be found/downloaded at: https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/1342288910. My personal thanks to the DCC for posting and sharing the results of their research and work in this manner. This is a brilliant example of the concept of digital humanities.

What I Use: April 2014

The first in an occasional look at the technology I use regularly

Friends, family and colleagues are frequently asking my advice on what kind of devices and software I find most useful.  So following in the tradition of Bernard Pivot and subsequently the Actor’s Studio, and sites like LifeHacker, Supersite for Windows, and many others, I’ve borrowed a handful of standard “get-to-know-you” type of questions that others might find helpful.

Keep in mind that given an infinite budget, I’d have quite a bit more or possibly be using something slightly different or more recent, but the following are things I actually use on an almost daily basis. I also have a large handful of occasional devices and tricks that are not included in the list for brevity.

Fifty years from now, this list should also be fairly entertaining to reread.

 

Primary equipment

Mobile device

Samsung Galaxy S III

Computer

Lenovo Thinkpad Edge E431; I’m enamored of the fact that the operating system lives on a small internal SSD for incredibly fast boot times.

Operating system(s)

I am using the final, shipping professional version of Windows 8.1 with Update 1 on my primary laptop PC.  I have a multi-boot set up on a 10″ Asus EeePC with XP, Windows 7, JoliOS (flavor of Linux), and a multi-boot set up on an HP desktop with XP, Vista, Windows 7, and the latest Ubuntu Linux.

Productivity

I haven’t found a reason to really upgrade from the Microsoft Office 2007 Small Business suite of tools including Word, Excel, and Outlook, which I use on a regular basis, but  I’ve seriously been considering getting Office 365 Home Premium. For the bulk of my writing though, I usually eschew Word and use WinEdt as a text editor/user interface in combination with a MiKTeX installation and Adobe Acrobat to typeset in LaTeX – the output is simply glorious. Lately I’ve also been working at rolling git version control into the mixture with Bitbucket. I use a variety of online storage solutions in addition to Google Drive and SkyDrive Pro, but my primary account is on Dropbox which does an excellent job of syncing files across platforms as well as sharing document with others. I generally use it by way of their Windows integrated application which makes for a very seamless workflow. For email, contacts, and calendar management, I primarily use Outlook.  But I also have a well-exercised Gmail account for sifting most of my social media accounts, as well as a lot of bacon and spam.

Internet and communications

For web browsing, I use the latest version of Google Chrome typically to the exclusion of all others. For instant messaging and video chat I use either Skype or Google Hangouts depending on the others involved, though I generally prefer Hangouts. I obviously use WordPress, but also have a few sites running Drupal as well. I do not use any third party security software as Windows Defender in Windows 8.1 includes anti-virus functionality and this seems to be more than enough. Generally just not clicking on any links you aren’t 100% certain are secure will cover most problems with viruses and malware.

Digital media

Music: I rarely, if ever, purchase music online or otherwise.  I bounce back and forth between free versions of Pandora and Spotify, though I tend to spend much more time on Spotify lately. Most of my owned music, audiobooks, and video content is managed through iTunes. I use DoubleTwist to sync to my Android devices.

Video: Netflix is the primary video service I use on an almost daily basis, though Amazon Prime’s streaming services is a fairly close second. Given the general availability of the content I want to watch, I find it rare to need to purchase any video content on any other platforms. I don’t often rip DVD’s, but when I do, I love Handbrake, which seems to be the sine qua non in the area.

Books: I have such a complicated set up with regard to ebooks, it will take an entire post to cover it all.  In simplest terms, I manage everything through a well-integrated combination of Calibre, Goodreads.com, Amazon’s Kindle, Adobe Digital Editions, Adobe Acrobat Reader, DJView, and Dropbox. Most books I get are either purchased through Amazon or are borrowed from a litany of local public libraries. I’ve spent the last several years converting almost all the reading I do to electronic reading. I still prefer to read on paper, but the overall process is much simpler in digital.

Audiobooks: I’ve loved Audible.com for a long time, but I’m currently on a short hiatus from it playing catch up on some of the content I’ve accumulated over the past couple of years. It’s a truly lovely service.  I also often use the Overdrive service through several local libraries for downloading and listening to audiobooks. While Overdrive is clunky and smothered in DRM, it works and is just good enough, and I’ve yet to find anything better that is free. When necessary, I’ll also borrow CD’s from the local library for listening as well.

Photos: I generally do a horrible job of managing my thousands of photos, but what little effort I do put forth goes into both Google+ Photos with Picasa or into the auto-backup feature in Dropbox.

Other applications and utilities

Feedly.com, TweetDeck, Mendeley.com, GetPocket.com,

Android Phone/Tablet apps

My favorites and most often used include: Waze, Evernote, Foursquare, Google Hangouts, DoubleTwist, Amazon Kindle, OverDrive Media, Audible, Facebook, Pocket, Netflix, Coursera Companion, Instagram, Path, Starbucks, Key Ring, Dropbox, Mailbox, Pandora, Flipboard. There are others, but I rarely use many of them.

 

 

Home technology

Television

I’m using a Samsung Series 5, 40″ LCD flatscreen.  Though there are certainly much newer models out there, this really has everything I could want and supplies a fantastic picture as well as even native sound.  Until the mansion arrives, or California housing prices drop precipitously, this is probably more television than I even need. For service, though I also pay for Comcast cable (just to get internet service), I only use DirecTV which, though I desperately love, I have a feeling I’ll eventually dump it to live a complete cord-cutter life.

Set-top boxes

In addition to a DirectTV HD DVR, I also have a Roku XD|S and Google Chomecast.  Though I enjoy the Roku, the user interface could be much better.  The Chromecast gets far more daily use, particularly for Netflix integration (via either a tablet or cell phone) and in my mind is the clear winner for being drop-dead easy-to-use. I particularly love the fact that the Chromecast automatically turns on the television and changes the internal television tuner, so I don’t need to pick up other devices to control the television.  I’ll also frequently use a mini-HDMI to HDMI adapter to connect my Kindle Fire HD to the television for streaming Amazon Prime video to the television as well.

Kitchen

  • Coffee: I’m not a total fiend in this department and usually prefer soda or tea, but when necessary, a simple Bodum French press in combination with a Kitchen Aide coffee grinder are just lovely.
  • Mixer: Life wouldn’t be complete without my 325 Watt Artisan Kitchen Aide stand mixer with a handful of attachments.
  • Soda maker: At the beginning of the year, I got a SodaStream and have been making my own carbonated beverages. Nothing is really quite as good as a Coke or a Dr. Pepper, but it’s been more creative and entertaining than pursuing my old habits.
  • Scale: I believe Fannie Farmer irreparably destroyed much of what could have been some superb American cuisine and any semblance of science in the kitchen, so I avidly use my Salter 3003 Aquatronic Glass Electronic Kitchen Scale to begin the healing.
  • Thermometers:  Among many others I primarily rely on a Maverick CT-03 Oil & Candy Digital Thermometer and a CDN DSP1 Dual Sensing Probe Thermometer and Timer

 

 

Free-form Broad Questions

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without? Why?

Calibre – For my 2000+ ebooks, this is an indispensable e-book and document program that is to books as iTunes is to music. I also use it to download dozens of magazines and newspapers on a daily basis for reading on my Kindle. I love that it’s under constant development with weekly updates for improved functionality.

Waze – When living in Los Angeles, this real-time traffic application often saves me anywhere from 30-90 minutes of time in traffic a day; it also has the side benefit of helping you explore parts of the city you might not find otherwise.

DoubleTwist – Since I’m an avid Android fan, I use this simple app to dovetail my music and video collections in iTunes to sync with my other digital devices.

What’s your workspace setup like?

My WorkspaceFor the past couple of years I’ve been using a 1962 McDowell & Craig executive tanker desk that I refinished in 2008 and I use a matching chair which I painstakingly reupholstered by hand in late 2013. I often use the custom made glass top with dry-erase markers to sketch out ideas or write disposable notes and also place photos and incunabula of various sorts underneath it. I’ve been tempted to do a standing desk but as yet haven’t. I’m half tempted to follow the lead of film editor Walter Murch and set my desk up on cinder blocks to jack it up to waist level.

What’s your best time-saving/shortcut/life hack?

It’s probably not the best, but at the beginning of the New Year, I had read some material about slimming down my wallet, which had gotten a bit out of control, and though it hasn’t been a major life-changer, the subtle differences have improved my daily life and workflow as a result. Using the android app Keyring or the Google Wallet app has helped significantly in reducing the amount of plastic I carry in my wallet. Everyone should have at least 10 library cards, but no one should have to carry them in their wallet (or on their keychain).

What’s your favorite to-do list manager?

I primarily use a very customized version of Outlook and its  task functionality to track my to do list items, but I’m also progressively using Evernote for some tasks. I’ve lately taken to using Evernote as my commonplace book.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?

My Kindle Fire 7″ HD is indispensable and I primarily use it only for reading as well as the occasional Netflix screening.  I’ve also had some great experiences lately with my new Timbuk2 Command Messenger Bag and my Zojurishi Travel Mug – I don’t know how I managed without them before.

For education purposes (primarily lectures), I am absolutely in love with my Livescribe Pulse Pen. I own three different versions. Every student on the planet should have one.

I could maybe live without them, but I’ve had a 30 year love affair with my Pentel 0.5mm and 0.7mm mechanical pencils, and they’ve literally lasted that long.

What do you listen to while you work?

Most often, lately, it’s been concert music from the past 500 years as well as some jazz work I’ve been exploring.  I’ve lately been re-exploring the late 70’s and early 80’s music which I missed in my very early youth.  Often I’ll also sample material friends and colleagues are listening to which is relatively easy on both Pandora and Spotify.

What are you currently reading?

Generally I’m actively reading 4-5 books at a time and less-actively up to 15 or so.  I use Goodreads.com to manage my reading lists, to find recommendations from others, and in part to catalog my library (though I’m far from having everything I own there).  I usually tend toward non-fiction, science, math, history and biography when reading for pleasure, though the occasional fiction piece will work its way into the stack. I’m a sucker for great youth literature.

Because of my commuting habits, I’ve also taken to listening to audiobooks and particularly course titles from The Learning Company’s Great Courses Series over the past several years. They’re not only educational, but they’re almost always very entertaining.

My specific active reading list right now includes:

And I’m currently listening to:

What are you currently watching on television?

I regularly watch Modern Family, The Big Bang, Hannibal, Charlie Rose, Person of Interest, Suits, PBS News Hour, The Good Wife, Downton Abbey, White Collar, Major Crimes, Psych, Parks & Recreation, Blue Bloods, The Profit, Restaurant: Impossible, Grimm, Perception Recent one-off shows include: H2’s Big History Series and Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews

 

Bernard Pivo-esque section

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?

I have a generally better memory than most. Though it was naturally good when I was younger, I ran across the concepts of the major system and the method of loci (aka the memory palace) at an early age and they have helped significantly.

What’s your sleep routine like?

I never seem to sleep as much as most, but lately I’ve been getting 5-6 hours of sleep at night usually from 2-7am. I’m far from a morning person and most of my best thinking hours are from 11pm to 2am.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?

I grew up definitely as an introvert, but during college I managed to force myself to be an extrovert. These days I move between the two as my mood and social circumstances dictate.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Some know it as the “Golden Rule,” but “Treat other people like you want to be treated.” I highly recommend people read How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Rap Genius, a Textual Annotation Browser for Education, Digital Humanities, Science, and Publishing

Since the beginning of January, I’ve come back to regularly browsing and using the website Rap GeniusI’m sure that some of the education uses including poetry and annotations of classics had existed the last time I had visited, but I was very interested in seeing some of the scientific journal article uses which I hadn’t seen before. Very quickly browsing around opened up a wealth of ideas for using the platform within the digital humanities as well as for a variety of educational uses.

Rap Genius logo

Overview of Rap Genius

Briefly, the Rap Genius website was originally set up as an innovative lyrics service to allow users to not only upload song lyrics, but to mark them up with annotations as to the meanings of words, phrases, and provide information about the pop-culture references within the lyrics themselves.  (It’s not too terribly different from Google’s now-defunct Sidewicki or the impressive Highbrow, textual annotation browser, but has some subtle differences as well as improvements.)

Users can use not only text, but photos, video, and even audio to supplement the listings. Built-in functionality includes the ability to link the works to popular social media audio services SoundCloud, and Spotify as well as YouTube. Alternately one might think of it as VH1’s “Pop-up Video”, but for text on the Internet. Ultimately the site expanded to include the topics of rock, poetry, and news.  The rock section is fairly straightforward following the format of the rap section while the poetry section includes not only works of poetry (from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to the King James version of The Bible), but also plays (the works of William Shakespeare) and complete novels (like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.) News includes articles as well as cultural touchstones like the 2013 White House Correspondents’ Dinner Speech and the recent State of the Union. Ultimately all of the channels within Rap Genius platform share the same types of functionality, but are applied to slightly different categories to help differentiate the content and make things easier to find.  Eventually there may be a specific “Education Genius” (or other) landing page(s) to split out the content in the future depending on user needs.

On even its first blush, I can see this type of website functionality being used in a variety of educational settings including Open Access Journals, classroom use, for close readings, for MOOCs, publishing in general, and even for maintaining simple-to-use websites for classes. The best part is that the ecosystem is very actively growing and expanding with a recent release of an iPhone app and an announcement of a major deal with Universal to license music lyrics.

General Education Use

To begin with, Rap Genius’ YouTube channel includes an excellent short video on how Poetry Genius might be used in a classroom setting for facilitating close-readings. In addition to the ability to make annotations, the site can be used to maintain a class specific website (no need to use other blogging platforms like WordPress or Blogger for things like this anymore) along with nice additions like maintaining a class roster built right in.  Once material begins to be posted, students and teachers alike are given a broad set of tools to add content, make annotations, ask questions, and provide answers in an almost real-time setting.

Screen capture from Poetry Genius featuring The Great Gatsby

MOOC Use Cases

Given the rapid growth of the MOOC-revolution (massively open online courseware) over the past several years, one of the remaining difficulties in administering such a class can hinge not only on being able to easily provide audio visual content to students, but allow them a means of easily interacting with it and each other in the learning process.  Poetry Genius (aka Education Genius) has a very interesting view into solving both of these problems, and, in fact, I can easily see the current version of the platform being used to replace competing platforms like Coursera, EdX, Udacity and others in a whole cloth fashion.

Currently most MOOC’s provide some type of simple topic-based threaded fora in which students post comments and questions as well as answers.  In many MOOCs this format becomes ungainly because of the size of the class (10,000+ students) and the quality of the content which is being placed into it. Many students simply eschew the fora because the time commitment per amount of knowledge/value gained is simply not worth their while. Within the Poetry Genius platform, students can comment directly on the material or ask questions, or even propose improvements, and the administrators (the professor or teaching assistants in this case) can accept, reject or send feedback request to students to amend their work and add it to the larger annotated work.  Fellow classmates can also vote up or down individual comments.

As I was noticing the interesting educational-related functionality of the Rap Genius platform, I ran across what is presumably the first MOOC attempting to integrate the platform into its pedagogical structure. Dr. Laura Nasrallah’s HarvardX course “Early Christianity: The Letters of Paul,” which started in January, asks students to also create Poetry Genius accounts to read and comment on the biblical texts which are a part of the course. The difficult portion of attempting to use Poetry Genius for this course is the thousands of “me-too” posters who are simply making what one might consider to be “throw-away” commentary rather than the intended “close reading” commentary for a more academic environment. (This type of posting is also seen in many of the fora-based online courses.) Not enough students are contributing substantial material, and when they are, it needs to be better and more quickly edited and curated into the main post to provide greater value to students as they’re reading along. Thus when 20,000 students jump into the fray, there’s too much initial chaos and the value that is being extracted out of it upon initial use is fairly limited – particularly if one is browsing through dozens of useless comments. It’s not until after-the-fact – once comments have been accepted/curated – that the real value will emerge. The course staff is going to have to spend more time doing this function in real time to provide greater value to the students in the class, particularly given the high number of people without intense scholarly training just jumping into the system and filling it with generally useless commentary. In internet parlance, the Poetry Genius site is experiencing the “Robert Scoble Effect” which changes the experience on it. (By way of explanation, Robert Scoble is a technology journalist/pundit/early-adopter with a massive follower base.  His power-user approach and his large following can drastically change his experience with web-based technology compared to the  common everyday user. It can also often bring down new services as was common in the early days of the social media movement.)

Typically with the average poem or rap song, the commentary grows slowly/organically and is edited along the way. In a MOOC setting with potentially hundreds of thousands of students, the commentary is like a massive fire-hose which makes it seemingly useless without immediate real-time editing. Poetry Genius may need a slightly different model for using their platform in larger MOOC-style courses versus the smaller classroom settings seen in high school or college (10-100 students). In the particular case for “The Letters of Paul,” if the course staff had gone into the platform first and seeded some of the readings with their own sample commentary to act as a model of what is expected, then the students would be a bit more accepting of what is expected. I understand Dr. Nasrallah and her teaching assistants are in the system and annotating as well, but it should also be more obvious which annotations are hers (or those of teaching assistants) to help better guide the “discussion” and act as a model. Certainly the materials generated on Poetry Genius will be much more useful for future students who take the course in future iterations. Naturally, Poetry Genius exists for the primary use of annotation, while I’m sure that the creators will be tweaking classroom-specific use as the platform grows and user needs/requirements change.

As a contrast to the HarvardX class, and for an additional example, one can also take a peek at Cathy Davidson’s Rap Genius presence for her Coursera class “The History and Future (Mostly) of Higher Education.”

Open Access Journal Use

In my mind, this type of platform can easily and usefully be used for publishing open access journal articles. In fact, one could use the platform to self-publish journal articles and leave them open to ongoing peer review. Sadly at present, there seems to be only a small handful of examples on the site, including a PLOS ONE article, which will give a reasonable example of some of the functionality which is possible.  Any author could annotate and footnote their own article as well as include a wealth of photos, graphs, and tables giving a much more multimedia view into their own work.  Following this any academic with an account could also annotate the text with questions, problems, suggestions and all of these can be voted up or down as well as be remedied within the text itself. Other articles can also have the ability to directly cross-reference specific sections of previously posted articles.

Individual labs or groups with “journal clubs” could certainly join in the larger public commentary and annotation on a particular article, but higher level administrative accounts within the system can also create a proverbial clean slate on an article and allow members to privately post up their thoughts and commentaries which are then closed to the group and not visible to the broader public. (This type of functionality can be useful for Mrs. Smith’s 10th grade class annotating The Great Gatsby so that they’re not too heavily influenced by the hundreds or possibly thousands of prior comments within a given text as they do their own personal close readings.) One may note that some of this type of functionality can already be seen in competitive services like Mendeley, but the Rap Genius platform seems to take the presentation and annotation functionalities to the next level. For those with an interest in these types of uses, I recommend Mendeley’s own group: Reinventing the Scientific Paper.

A Rap Genius representative indicated they were pursuing potential opportunities with JSTOR that might potentially expand on these types of opportunities.

Publishing

Like many social media related sites including platforms like WordPress, Tumblr, and Twitter, Rap Genius gives it’s users the ability to self-publish almost any type of content. I can see some excellent cross-promotional opportunities with large MOOC-type classes and the site. For example, professors/teachers who have written their own custom textbooks for MOOCs (eg. Keith Devlin’s Introduction to Mathematical Thinking course at Stanford via Coursera) could post up the entire text on the Poetry Genius site and use it not only to correct mistakes/typos and make improvements over time, but they can use it to discover things which aren’t clear to students who can make comments, ask questions, etc. There’s also the possibility that advanced students can actively help make portions clear themselves when there are 10,000+ students and just 1-2 professors along with 1-2 teaching assistants. Certainly either within or without the MOOC movement, this type of annotation set up may work well to allow authors to tentatively publish, edit, and modify their textbooks, novels, articles, journal articles, monographs, or even Ph.D. theses. I’m particularly reminded of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s open writing/editing of her book Planned Obsolescence via Media Commons. Academics could certainly look at the Rap Genius platform as a simpler more user-friendly version of this type of process.

Other Uses

I’m personally interested in being able to annotate science and math related articles and have passed along some tips for the Rap Genius team to include functionality like mathjax to be able to utilize Tex/LaTeX related functionality for typesetting mathematics via the web in the future.

Naturally, there are a myriad of other functionalities that can be built into this type of platform – I’m personally waiting for a way to annotate episodes of “The Simpsons”, so I can explain all of the film references and in-jokes to friends who laugh at their jokes, but never seem to know why – but I can’t write all of them here myself.

Interested users can easily sign up for a general Rap Genius account and dig right into the interface.  Those interested in education-specific functionality can request to be granted an “Educator Account” within the Rap Genius system to play around with the additional functionality available to educators. Every page in the system has an “Education” link at the top for further information and details. There’s also an Educator’s Forum [requires free login] for discussions relating specifically to educational use of the site.

Are there particular (off-label) applications you think you might be able to use the Rap Genius platform for? Please add your comments and thoughts below.

A Modest Proposal for Engineering Better and Faster Fast Food Consumption

Fast Food in America

America is well known for its fast food culture. So well known, in fact, that it may only be second to its best-in-class health care, phenomenal education system, and overall can-do attitude. Rarely does a day go by without one seeing or hearing a few disparaging words from the mainstream media about what we choose to put into our mouths and whether those items become lodged permanently in some cases. A Google search begun with the first letters “ob…” immediately has Google guessing what we want and prompts a potential search not just for “obesity” but for the very specific phrase “obesity in America”§ and the resultant search displays just under 73 million results in about half a second.

Our obsession with fast food is legendary. Books are written about the subject, movies are made, and we support a multi-billion dollar fast food industry. But how much time do we individually spend really thinking about what we’re doing? The answer hinges on one of our favorite pastimes and is one in which the root of our obesity problem sprouts: “laziness.” (For those incapable of doing the work of thinking for themselves and who just want the quick answer to the previous question given to them, it’s: “none”.)

“Americanizing” your Fast Food Experience with Some Simple Engineering

Given that we love our fast food so much that we can’t even be bothered with thinking about it for a few minutes (otherwise how does a book entitled Wheat Belly become a best seller and major fad?), I’m always surprised that the simple engineering concept which follows isn’t more widely known. If it were, it would be right at home in our gourmand, “have-it-your-way, right-away” culture.

The simple idea follows:

In some fast food restaurants (think Burger King and In-n-Out), instead of (or in addition to) the ubiquitous ketchup packet, they allow you to fill your own container with the condiment of your choice.  But what container do they provide you with? Obviously, in keeping with the assembly line beauty and grace of our ultra-modern food manufacturing empire and our disposable home furnishings industry, it’s something simple, something very cheap, and something immediately disposable: the small paper cup! (Even legal departments could get behind this one – as long as the industry wasn’t putting any hot beverages into it, and, in part, because the patent protection had expired.)

Standard empty ketchup condiment container on left juxtaposed with same container full of ketchup on the right hand side.

But it’s no ordinary paper cup! It’s an honest-to-goodness feat of American ingenuity and engineering design! (At least from a time when America had those things – you remember… way back before we gave them up for the improved qualities like laziness and obesity. And everyone knows the American engineering motto: “Quality is Job #1!”)

Standard ketchup condiment container "spread out" on left juxtaposed with modified container full of ketchup on the right hand side.
A feat of American ingenuity! (Who cares if these are called souffle cups?)

This high quality paper cup has pleats! And with a small bit of pulling around the edges of the cup, it opens right up – or “blooms” if you will.

In this process, the top edge of the cup comes down just a tad, but in exchange, the sides expand out toward the horizon in glorious near-infinite beauty. This simple effect allows one to put a significantly larger quantity of ketchup into it–particularly because the ketchup has such a high viscosity! (While I’m thinking about it has anyone considered liquefying ketchup so we could just drink it out of our big gulp cups? Maybe a French fry shake with ketchup blended in to make things easier all around?)

The Benefits of our Engineering Trick

“But it takes so much time and energy to expand out the sides of my cheap paper cup! Why should I bother?”

I know many of you are asking yourself this question because in a rapidly evolving and improving society it’s often the dichotomy of American life to maintain the status quo.  This simple expansion procedure allows you the following clear benefits:

  • You can put a lot more ketchup onto your plate and therefore ultimately into your gullet. Besides, everyone in America knows “Bigger is Better!” right? Why fill up two or three of these small cups, when one big expanded one will do? Or better yet, three big ones! (Let’s not forget our gourmand cultural heritage.)
  • It makes it easier to carry a  lot more ketchup in fewer trips from the condiment bar to your table. American pride in concepts like capitalism and increased efficiency at all costs dictates that we take fewer trips. The reduced amount of exercise is also a positive side-benefit here.
  • It makes ketchup easier to share. (I know this sharing concept is antithetical to the current American ethos, but maybe someone from one of those poor countries outside of America might be reading this? Maybe it’s a strong enough idea to quell the strife in Ukraine right now?)  No more approaching the cup at excessively steep angles to get your fries into it.  Now you can approach from a lower angle with your fat fist-full-of-fries and still hit your target.
  • Not only can you now dunk your fries, but you can actually dunk your majestic hamburger! Why waste time trying to open up that ketchup packet and squeeze some on while you’re making the effort to balance your heavy burger in your other hand? Just smash it into the ketchup and then smash it into your face! “Yipee-ki-yay Mother French Fry!”
  • Those suffering from diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, and cataracts no longer have to worry about being able to get their French fry into such a tiny paper cup anymore, the size of the target is now bigger by almost an order of magnitude.
  • Use of these paper cups helps to support the American paper goods industry which churns out highly recyclable products which also have the benefit of being Green and therefore unquestioningly good for the environment. No one knows what those alternate ketchup packets are manufactured from or if they’re recyclable or not. Some fabricated laboratory studies indicate some of those packets may have heavy metals in them, which we all know are mined/sourced primarily in China.
  • And perhaps best of all, in the true spirit of America largess – there’s huge return for a very little effort! Everyone is looking for a get-rich-quick-scheme which doesn’t involve actual work, right? This is the closest you’re likely to come to it, and my friends who know a thing or two about the second law of thermodynamics agree. In fact, it might even qualify for the ethereal and long-fabled “free lunch” because, hey, most restaurants aren’t going to charge you for condiments are they?

Ketchup and the Economy

I have a deep, abiding suspicion that far too many Americans haven’t been taking advantage of these pleats in their condiment cups, and that, in fact, the marginal utility lost in manufacturing the extra unused paper when this isn’t done is very likely the root cause of the world economic crisis which began in 2008. The plummeting American efficiency numbers just weighed too heavily on our economy, but that’s a longer and more analytical story than I have space or phony facts to back up with here. (If you’re a talking head political pundit on a major cable news network, call my publicist and let’s talk.) Needless to say, if we can work this simple trick into the second grade core curriculum, I think our long term efficiency numbers will perk up and the savings realized could mean saving the beleaguered Social Security program until at least 2079.

Standard ketchup condiment container on left juxtaposed with modified container full of ketchup on the right hand side.
Super Size Me!

Footnotes:

§ Obamacare was a close second.

† I was too busy lounging on my couch watching Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives on TV and eating a bag of Doritos and Twizzlers to come up with other examples like Supersize Me.

♦ Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan admits almost as much in his book The Map and the Territory: Risk, Human Nature, and the Future of Forecasting (Penguin Press, 2013) where he indicates real estate as a leading cause of the downturn. Each of these condiment cups has a square inch of space hiding in its pleats and when multiplied over tens of thousands of cups per fast food location multiplied by thousands of fast food locations in any given year it becomes a lot of real estate rapidly, and the effect can become crippling.

‡ This also reminds me of a treatise I was reading last week called a Modest Proposal written by a political hack/wannabe writer named Swift. It wasn’t the sharpest thing I’ve heard recently, but with a few tweaks, I think his idea could make a huge dent in third world hunger and poverty and speed us along towards the goal of realizing Soylent Green in the marketplace.

New Routledge Text on Systems Theory

Over the holiday I ran across a press release, which follows with web links added, for a new book on systems theory. It promises to be an excellent read on the development and philosophy of systems theory for those interested in cybernetics, information theory, complexity and related topics.

Book cover image of Traditions of Systems Theory: Major Figures and Contemporary Developments

MIAMI, Fla., Dec. 19, 2013
Dr. Darrell Arnold, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Institute for World Languages and Cultures at St. Thomas University, has published an edited volume with Routledge entitled Traditions of Systems Theory: Major Figures and Contemporary Developments. Hans-Georg Moeller, of University College Cork, Ireland, notes that the book “provides a state-of-the-art survey of the increasingly influential and fascinating field of systems theory. It is a highly useful resource for a wide range of disciplines and contributes significantly to bringing together current trends in the sciences and the humanities.” The book includes 17 articles from leading theoreticians in the field, including pieces by Ranulph Glanville, the President of the American Society for Cybernetics, as well as Debora Hammond, the former President of the International Society for Systems Sciences. It is the first comprehensive edited volume in English on the major and countervailing developments within systems theory.

Dr. Arnold writes on 19th century German philosophy, contemporary social theory, as well as technology and globalization, with a focus on how these areas relate to the environmental problematic. He has translated numerous books from German, including C. Mantzavinos’s Naturalistic Hermeneutics (Cambridge UP) and Matthias Vogel’s Media of Reason (Columbia UP). Dr. Arnold is also editor-in-chief of the Humanities and Technology Review.

For additional information on St. Thomas University academic programs and faculty publications, please contact Marivi Prado, Chief Marketing Officer, 305.474.6880; mprado@stu.edu

Dr. Darrell P. Arnold
Dr. Darrell P. Arnold

I’ve ordered my copy and will be providing a review shortly.

Brief Notes on “Consider the Fork”

Consider the Fork: How Technology Transforms the Way We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson was one of my favorite Christmas presents this year. It covered my loves of history, gadgets, food, technology, entomology, popular culture and even evolution and anthropology. The major broad themes were very interesting and enlightening while being very well researched.

There were a few short sections on individual technologies which did feel a bit throw in almost as afterthoughts or which were related to the bigger topics, but just didn’t stand up on their own. Fortunately these didn’t detract from the overall work, though I did feel a bit more on these could have been written.

This is one of the most interesting books on food which I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

Image

Brief Book Review: James Gleick’s “The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood”

Overall James Gleick’s book The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood is an excellent read. Given that it’s an area with which I’m intimately interested, I’m not too surprised that most of it is “review”, but I’d highly recommend it to the general public to know more about some of the excellent history, philosophy, and theory which Gleick so nicely summarizes throughout the book.

Book Cover: The Information

There are one or two references in the back which I’ll have to chase down and read and one or two, which after many years, seem like they may be worth a second revisiting after having completed this.

Even for the specialist, Gleick manages to tie together some disparate thoughts to create an excellent whole which makes it a very worthwhile read. I found towards the last several chapters, Gleick’s style becomes much more flowery and less concrete, but most of it is as a result of covering the “humanities” perspective of information as opposed to the earlier parts of the text which were more specific to history and the scientific theories he covered.

Review originally posted at GoodReads.com.

Response to “Path: A Twenty-First Century Geotagging Journal”

Replied to Path: A Twenty-First Century Geotagging Journal by Adeline Koh (ProfHacker | The Chronicle of Higher Education)
Below is my response to Adeline Koh‘s article “Path: A Twenty-First Century Geotagging Journal” which appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Prof Hacker Blog on August 29, 2012.

path-image-242x300-scaled500

Adeline, Path might be a reasonable tool for accomplishing what you’d like, but it’s original design is as a very small and incredibly personal social networking tool and therefore not the best thing for your particular use case here. Toward that end, it’s personalization ability to limit who sees what is highly unlikely to change as they limit your “friends” to less than your Dunbar number in the first place. Their presupposition is that you’re only sharing things with your VERY closest friends.

For more functionality in the vein you’re looking at, you might consider some of the Google tools which will allow you much more granularity in terms of sharing, tracking, and geotagging. First I’d recommend using Google Latitude which will use your cell phone GPS to constantly track your location at all times if you wish of the ability to turn it on and off at will. This will allow you to go back and see exactly where you were on any given day you were sending them data. (It’s also been useful a few times when I’ve lost/left my phone while out of the house or in others’ cars and I can log in online to see exactly where my phone is right now.) Latitude will also allow you to share your physical location with others you designate as well as to export portions of data sets for later use/sharing.)

Unbeknownst to many, most cell phones and increasingly many cameras will utilize GPS chips or wifi to geolocate your photo and include it in the EXIF data imbedded into the “digital fingerprint” of your photo (along with the resolution, date, time, what type of camera took the photo, etc.) For this reason, many privacy experts suggest you remove/edit your exif data prior to posting your photos to public facing social media sites as it can reveal the location of your personal home, office, etc which you may not mean to share with the world.) There are a number of tools you can find online for viewing or editing your exif data.

You can then upload those photos to Google Plus which will allow you to limit your sharing of posts to whichever groups of people you’d prefer with a high degree of granularity, including using email addresses for people who aren’t already on the service. (They actually have a clever back up option that, if selected, will allow your phone to automatically upload all your photos to G+ in the background and making them private to you only for sharing at a later date if you choose.) I’m sure that with very little work, you can find some online tools (including even Google Maps perhaps) that will allow you to upload photos and have them appear on mapping software. (Think about the recent upgrade in Craigslist that takes posting data and maps it out onto the Openstreetmap.org platform).

Finally, as part of Google’s Data Liberation initiative you can go in and export all of your data for nearly all of their services including Latitude and from Picasa for photos.I think that playing around with these interlocking Google tools will give you exactly the type of functionality (and perhaps a little more than) you’re looking for.

Their user interface may not be quite as beautiful and slick as Path and may take half an hour of playing with to explore and configure your workflow exactly the way you want to use it, but I think it will give you a better data set with a higher degree of sharing granularity. (Alternately, you could always develop your own “app” for doing this as there are enough open API’s for many of these functions from a variety of service providers, but that’s another story for another time.)

Books have always been digital, not analog

James Gleick (August 1, 1954 — ) American author and historian of science
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